The great thing about 70′s UK Soul pioneers Kokomo is that their reputation as one of the finest ‘groove’ units ever to come out of this country has remained largely intact. Unlike rather better known contemporaries and touring mates, Kokomo’s status hasn’t been devalued by playing endlessly as something of a tribute to themselves with increasingly suspect line-ups and nor have Kokomo suffered the pressures to remain relevant to changing musical trends and industry whims. No dodgy 80′s drum-machined, synthetic-horned, embarrassing ‘trend’ following albums in this particular back catalogue, thank you very much.
Instead, beset by internal conflicts and other problems, Kokomo simply imploded when all seemed set fair. One or two low key re-unions aside, the band – if certainly not the individual players – has been inactive ever since. So who are Kokomo? Well, they were – and still are, but we’ll come to that – one of the, if not the, finest ‘groove’ units that this country has ever produced. In keeping with many legendary American bands from that period, such as the The Band and Little Feat, Kokomo gained a reputation based not so much on their versatility or musical vocabulary, good as it was, but one based more on the band’s distinctive ‘sound’ and ‘feel’. A ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ which in their case owed much to, without being solely derivative of, ‘old school’ American r&b, soul, gospel and groove based rock.
Formed in May 1973, Kokomo’s first performance was at The Pheasantry, King’s Road, Chelsea where Franky Blackwell, the band’s roadie, coined the band’s name. Their reputation quickly spread and a major label deal was nailed. The band’s debut, Kokomo, released in 1975, was hailed by the NME as the best debut by a British band for several years. The original ten-piece line-up consisted of a trade mark vocal sound using four vocalists: Dyan Birch, Frank Collins, Paddy McHugh and Tony O’Malley (also keyboard duties), all from the band ‘Arrival’, two top ten hits to the good. A key axis of Alan Spenner (bass) and Neil Hubbard (guitar) were recruited from Joe Cocker’s Grease band; Mel Collins (saxophone) from King Crimson. Percussionist Jody Linscott (who went on to tour with The Who, Elton John, Dave Gilmour and more), Terry Stannard (drums) and Jim Mullen (guitar) completed the line up. Such was the unit’s skill and reputation that Bob Dylan recruited the band to help record his Desire album. Despite seemingly having it all in place – including being seen as a priority for their label (CBS) enjoying a top manager (Steve O’Rourke, who also managed Pink Floyd), and making increasing in-roads into the lucrative American market – by January 1977 the band’s meltdown was such that an indefinite hiatus was announced.
After an extended sabbatical, a further studio album was released in 1982, containing the single A Little Bit Further Away which peaked at Number 45 in the British chart. By and large, that was then that, further compounded by the tragic premature death of influential bassist Alan Spenner in August 1991. The band’s enduring pedigree is, however, evidenced by how many of the original members have gone on to enjoy considerable success in their subsequent careers. Jim Mullen is now a much feted award winning jazz guitarist, Hubbard a regular fixture with Bryan Ferry, Linscott continues to work with everyone from McCartney to Will Young and Mel Collins sax work has graced albums and gigs by Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, to name but a few.
To some extent the The Kokomo torch has continued to be carried by the solo career of co-founder Tony O’Malley (himself briefly a member of 10cc). Whilst O’Malley maintains his integrity as an originals artist, regularly releasing new work, a number of his former Kokomo bandmates have informed much of both his live and studio work, alongside other legendary sidemen such as Hamish Stuart (Average White Band, Chaka Khan, McCartney), Pino Pallidino (The Who, D’Angelo) and Andy Newmark (Sly Stone, John Lennon).
Indeed, it was some recent ‘Tony O’Malley and Friends’ gigs which brought the whole Kokomo experience back into the spotlight. Two back to back sold out gigs at London’s famed 606 club and The Chichester Inn, followed by a later gig at the prestigious Hideaway club, saw O’ Malley take to the stage, by turns, alongside not only regular sidemen Neil Hubbard and Mel Collins but also original singers Frank Collins, Paddy McHugh (over from France) and Dyan Birch. These six original Kokomo members were augmented by the revered engine room of bassist Steve Pearce (whose CV is like a ‘whos who’ of popular music, Stevie Wonder included), drummer Ralph Salmins (ditto) and guitarist Adam Phillips, all noted sidemen with Hamish Stuart’s much admired band. Emerging and highly rated young soul/blues singer, Jo Harman, augmented the line up at each gig which, whether by happy accident or design, collectively nailed both the spirit and sound of the original Kokomo vibe.
Anyone who was there – and legendary drummer Steve Ferrone was one – will bear witness to these very special and extraordinary gigs indeed. Lead by O’Malley’s distinctive ‘down home’ piano style – not a thousand miles away from that of Ray Charles, at times – the ensemble joyously ploughed through an amazing two and half hours of uplifting and heartfelt music. O’Malley handled most of the lead vocal duties with due aplomb, his famous trademark growl ‘owning’ classics like ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Tears in Heaven’ as much as his own compositions such as ‘Serious’, ‘Mr Operator’ and ‘For The Children’. At the 606 Dyan Birch’s took over lead vocals on ‘Yes We Can Can’ and Frank Collins impressed likewise on the joyous gospel romp that was ‘Gone At Last’.With the engine room of Pearce, Salmins and Hubbard (also excelling on co-lead guitar) creating a pillow of groove so satisfying and spacious that you could lie on it, this was ensemble playing of the highest quality. Mel Collins blew by turns, melodically and bluesely, and the four vocalists weaved and teased, occasionally joining together with full on gospel fuelled intensity.
The individual diary commitments and the fact that O’Malley, like McHugh, now resides in Europe, somewhat ensures these ‘reunions’ largely remain as rare as hens teeth. Which is a genuine shame because although there are many fine soulful musicians in this country, no one but no one grooves quite like how ‘Kokomo’ groove. These chaps are, collectively, somewhat akin to Motown’s ‘funk brothers’ in they have a definable, discernible sound unlike no other. Perhaps one day they’ll be equally revered and respected – are you watching BBC4?. In any event this is British r&b royalty in action, they really don’t make musicians like this anymore.